Have you ever seen a player work on his fist-pumps on the practice court? That may sound like a comical concept to most of us, but it was serious business for Kevin Anderson last year. In 2017, at the ripe old tennis age of 31, the 6’8” South African decided to give his game a makeover. It began not with his serve or his return or his footwork. It began with his “Come on!”s
Self-exhortation had never been this gentle, cerebral giant’s forte. For the first 10 years of his career, and the first three decades of his life, Anderson had been among the most even-tempered of tennis players. He never smashed his racquet, he never moaned about bad calls, he hardly even cracked a smile or changed his expression at all when he won. But after making a slow, painstaking, years-long rise into the Top 20, this methodical son of two engineers thought he needed something a little extra, something a little outside the box, to help him take the next step up the ATP ladder.
“We can hit all the shots, so you try to find the right formula that allows you to play the best tennis,” Anderson told The New York Times last year. “Being a bit more vocal, and bringing more energy, is something that, even though it wasn’t natural for me, it allows me to play better tennis.”
“Now I’m allowing myself to acknowledge all the good shots I hit.”
The newly fired-up Anderson quickly found himself caught, happily, in a virtuous circle: The more good shots he acknowledged, the more good shots he found himself hitting. And that next step up the ladder? He’s taken two or three of them over the last 12 months. After reaching the quarterfinals just once in his first 33 Grand Slam events, Anderson made the US Open final in 2017 and cracked the Top 10 for the first time. This spring, after failing to reach the semifinals in his first 66 Masters 100 events—dating back to 2008—he finally broke that seemingly unbreakable barrier by making it to the semifinal in Madrid, and then did it again in Toronto.
When Anderson was asked by ESPN this summer what aspect of his game he had improved most, he credited his attitude first. A more positive mindset during matches has translated into a more confident and assertive view of his status on the tour.
“The trust and belief in my game, knowing I have the tennis to beat anyone in the world, I really believe that when I step out on the tennis court,” Anderson said. “The comfortability of saying, ‘I’m here to win this tournament,’ feels much more natural to me as time has gone on.”
According to Brad Gilbert, the progress hasn’t just been in Anderson’s head. The work he has done on several parts of his game with new coach Brad Stine in 2018 has also paid dividends.
“He’s playing a lot more confidently from the ground, and his return has improved,” Gilbert said. “The only player who hits the return deeper right now is Novak Djokovic.”
That more aggressive mindset has allowed Anderson to make the most of his often-underrated talents.
“There’s not a lot of guys 6’8” and above, but he’s the best mover of them by far, especially side to side,” Gilbert said.
There has only been one glitch in the new Anderson winning machine: Some of his opponents haven’t appreciated his in-your-face demeanor, especially now that they’re on the losing end of matches against him. During a testy fourth-round encounter at the French Open, Diego Schwartzman finally had enough of the extroverted Anderson, and complained about his non-stop chatter. Inspired by what he considered Anderson’s disrespect, Schwartzman fought back from two sets down to win.
But Anderson’s ascent wasn’t slowed for long. Three weeks later at Wimbledon he toned down the self-talk, but stepped up his game still more. In the process, he completed one of the all-time back-to-back performances in Grand Slam history. In the quarterfinals, he beat tournament favorite Roger Federer for the first time, 13-11 in the fifth set; in the semifinals two days later, he beat John Isner 26-24 in the fifth set. At six hours and 36 minutes, it was the second-longest match in Wimbledon history. Suddenly, Anderson was a household name and a fan favorite, not just for his epic victory, but also for the humility and graciousness he showed toward his defeated opponent.
“At the end, you feel like this is a draw between the two of us, but somebody has to win,” an exhausted Anderson told the BBC seconds after walking off Centre Court. “John’s such a great guy. I really feel for him because being on the opposite side I don’t know how you can take that, playing for so long and coming up short.”
Fans at the US Open likely won’t forget those kind words for an American player; Anderson may hear the biggest cheers of his career when he returns to Arthur Ashe Stadium for the first time since losing in last year’s final. Now only one question remains for him: Can he win a Grand Slam title?
As Anderson might say: “Come on!” He’s fist-pumped his way this far; why can’t he go one step farther?